Whilst I'm old enough to remember the great wife-swapping scandals that engulfed the suburbs of Sheffield during the late 1960's and 1970's, I was amazed to find details of a case in Sheffield which involved the actual selling of a wife. It appears that this long-standing English tradition has died out as a result of easier divorce laws and changing social mores but at one time it was a very popular and practical method of ending a marital relationship. 

But to appreciate the Sheffield case, it is necessary to provide a brief description of the background and practice of wife selling  

A divorce in eighteenth century England was exceedingly difficult for the aristocracy to obtain and an impossibility for the lower orders. So through their resourcefulness, they devised the means to dissolve unhappy marriages with "The Wife Sale." So popular was this device that it was only due to Victorian objection that the practice was finally abolished. When wife selling was at its most popular, there occurred three hundred of them between the years of 1780 and 1850. Whilst this method of separation was never legally sanctioned, the law tended to turn a blind eye as long as the sale was agreeable to all parties involved. Because wife selling was not legal, with no papers being issued to either party making the separation official, these sales were conducted in public to make the separation a witnessed fact.
Perhaps the one occasion on which a gathering crowd could be depended upon was the regular market day in any parish. Therefore, it was quite popular to conduct wife sales in a market square, much to the delight of the crowd. To further link the sale to the market place, the wife to be sold had a halter placed around her neck and was led to the auction block by her husband.
However, these sales were conducted only by mutual consent. A husband could not drag his wife to market and open the bidding if she were reluctant. Wife sales were an amicable way for two unhappy partners to dissolve a marriage and start anew. More importantly, though the sale took place in a public arena it was all done for show. In fact, the lady already knew who the highest bidder would be, as that gentleman was most likely already her paramour. The trappings of an auction sale served only to amuse the populace.
The aristocracy, however, was not amused. An issue of The Times contained the following passage regarding a wife sale which took place in London in 1799: "On Friday a butcher exposed his wife to sale in Smithfield Market, near the Ram Inn, with a halter about her neck, and one about her waist, which tied her to a railing; when a hog driver was the happy purchaser, who gave the husband three guineas and a crown for his departed rib. Pity it is there is no stop put to such depraved conduct in the lower order of people."
Monies that changed hands was always nominal; meant to be a token sum rather than a true financial gain. In some parts of England, both the ex-husband and the buyer spat upon their palms before sealing the sale with a handshake and shouting out the selling price, which in the London markets amounted to any where from five to ten shillings. Business completed, it was usual for all parties concerned to visit some tavern or alehouse, where the former husband bought a round of drinks for all present with the proceeds from the sale. It was usual for the ex-wife to symbolically return her wedding ring to the former husband. From the time of the sale onwards, the ex-husband was no longer financially obligated to the wife. Was the aristocracy entitled to their "better than thou" views regarding wife sales? One thinks not upon examination of private separations, drawn up by the two parties, with a Justice of the Peace sometimes being asked to settle the financial terms, thus lending an official air to the proceedings. 

The Adelaide Hotel, Mowbray Steet, Sheffield circa 1930 

The unusual aspect of the Sheffield case was that it took place in 1887 when the practise of wife-selling had for the most part disappeared, and that it was part of a civil action that took place in the County Court in Sheffield. Sadly no date is given for when this transaction took place and no exact location of the Royal Oak is disclosed in the reports, it was just "sometime ago"

The 1881 Census for Sheffield does show the following household, and so we can assume that the incident in the case was after 1881

Dwelling: 50 & 48 Mowbray St Adelaide Hotel Census Place Brightside Bierlow, York, England
Family History Library Film 1342126 Public Records Office Reference RG11 Piece / Folio 4658 / 25 Page Number 7

Name Relation Marital Status Gender Age Birthplace Occupation
Jesse SMITHIES Head M Male 46 Methly, York, England Shoe Maker And Beerhouse Keeper
Harriet SMITHIES Wife M Female 56 Sheffield, York, England
Abraham BOOTHROYD Son In Law M Male 23 Sheffield, York, England Engine Fitter (& Tr)
Clara BOOTHROYD Step Daughter M Female 19 Sheffield, York, England
Isaac WHITELEY Step Son U Male 22 Sheffield, York, England Table Blade Grinder
Clara BOOTHROYD Grand Daughter Female 7 m Sheffield, York, England
Samuel HIRST Lodger U Male 19 Sheffield, York, England Carter To Coal Dealer

Anyway six years later the Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), dated  Sunday, July 17, 1887; Issue 2330 gave the following report


An earlier report in the  The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), dated Thursday, July 14, 1887; Issue 6965 more or less gives the same information.

And finally the Leeds Mercury dated 15th July 1887 in its section "Politics and Society" had the following comments to make on the Sheffield case and another one that had taken place elsewhere

"Not long ago in court there was exposure to a revolting transaction where a man had put a halter around his wife's neck and had handed her over to a purchaser, who declared with quite a proprietor-like air that "he had bought her for sixpence" The other day in Sheffield where this stubble of iniquity has often been heard, a fish dealer who was suing for payment of a debt confessed that in 1884 he had bought the wife of one Abraham Boothroyd named Clara for 5s. The receipt from the sale was produced in court, worded with some intelligence as to the form of legal patter, and regularly witnessed. The five shillings was spent on drink. It says much for our truth telling habits that the fish dealer owned up to this commerce of matrimony"

At 2006 prices, the five shillings that the fish dealer paid for CLARA BOOTHROYD, was roughly the equivalent of 19, which seems remarkably cheap given the circumstances of the sale!

In January 1987 the Sheffield Star published a Centenary Souvenir edition which contained the following report 

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), dated  Sunday, July 17, 1887; Issue 2330

The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), dated Thursday, July 14, 1887; Issue 6965

Leeds Mercury dated 15th July 1887

Sheffield Star Centenary Souvenir edition - January 1987

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This page was last updated on 17/03/10 08:43